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Interview: Groundhopper Paul Collins

Groundhopping - the activity of going to watch football games at many different places; it has become a popular past time in recent years. But, for someone who has visited stadia the world over, what makes Korean football stadiums and their matchday experience unique? Groundhopper Paul Collins explains.
(Image via pc_travellingfan)
How long have you been groundhopping for? When did it become a hobby in itself as opposed to just going to watch football matches?

My partner and I travelled in 2008 ahead of living and working in Australia. At the time, I worked as a sports journalist in Scotland and knew I'd really miss football so I set myself a challenge of attending games in every country I visited. I managed to attend games in Hong Kong, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Nicaragua, USA and Canada over that period. I wasn't familiar with the term "groundhopping" at the time - it just started off as a challenge and then developed into a bit of an obsession as each and every match was providing unforgettable experiences and taking me to areas I would not otherwise have seen. I have so many amazing memories - I just wish Instagram had been around at the time!

A post shared by Paul (@pc_travellingfan) on

What brought you to Korea/Korean football grounds? Do you remember your first K League game?

We worked in Korea from 2010-2012 as English teachers in a small town called Balan, which is just outside of Suwon. I had a season ticket for Suwon Bluewings along with two other players in my Sunday league team and went to games regularly. I do remember my first game. It was one week after arriving in Korea and a group of teachers had arranged a weekend of activities which was culminating in FC Seoul vs Ulsan at Seoul World Cup Stadium. Suffice to say, the vast majority of the group had dropped away by the time the game came around and only three of us made it. FC Seoul won 3-0 and although I enjoyed it, it wasn't until I went to Suwon Bluewings vs Gwangju a few weeks later that I really began to get into Korean football. That was a great experience - it was a Saturday night and the atmosphere was brilliant. After that, I was a regular.

You have been to a lot of different countries and a lot of different football grounds, how do the ones in Korea compare to those in other countries you have been to in terms of the view, atmosphere and matchday experience? Any quirks?

It's been a while since I attended games regularly in Korea but I always felt the Korean football scene was massively under-rated. Games and transport are highly affordable, pitches are always immaculate, which makes for good football, and the fan scene, particularly in Suwon, is a lot more vibrant and organised that I expected. Coming from Scotland, I enjoy any matchday experience that trusts supporters to behave themselves. I think Korea is among the most laid back in terms of security I've ever seen; I used to love seeing fans turn up with their own food and drink and set up in the stadium hours before kick off. Obviously the game in Korea revolves around corporate sponsorship but I rarely found this too over-bearing and, I'm not quite sure how, I always felt they managed to find a way to make the whole experience family friendly without being too cheesy. One of the quirks that sticks in my mind about Korean football is the way fans would cheer goals in the warm up - something I found funny at first but then began to grate!

How many Korean stadiums have you been to? Which ones are your favourites?

I'd struggle to put a figure on it but a lot. I always had a soft spot for the Suwon Civic Stadium as it had a real brutalist feel to it and has possibly the best floodlights I've ever seen. This will sound like a real hipster answer, but I went to a lower league game between Jungang Chorus Mustang and Seoul Martyrs in a stadium (I forget the name) in the west of Seoul. The stadium itself was interesting but it particularly sticks in my mind for its location; I thought I was completely lost but it actually emerges from a wooded area with nothing else around it.

Any unique characteristics about Korean stadiums compared to others around the world?

I like the way most stadiums have a lot of facilities around the periphery - I find this is becoming increasingly less common but is certainly not specific to Korea. I do remember some stadiums having extremely odd design quirks - for instance, the moat around Busan's stadium, which could easily be missed. I actually heard of one foreign fan falling down it and seriously injuring himself when Suwon Bluewings played there in the 2010 FA Cup final. Incheon's stadium is also quite unusual; I was there again during a visit last year and forgot it had a five-a-side football pitch at the back of one of the stands.

As someone who has been to a lot of football grounds, what do you think  Korean/K League clubs could do to improve the atmosphere/matchday experience?

Honestly, Korean football ranks highly for atmosphere and matchday experience for me. Perhaps teams could do a little more to attract local supporters. I was constantly surprised by how little the Koreans I worked with knew about Suwon Bluewings in comparison to how much they knew about the English Premiership. However, I actually found it quite hard going back to Scottish football after Korean football. It perhaps doesn't have the same raw passion but in terms of matchday experience, I think a lot of other leagues could learn from the K-League. That said, it did feel a little more American-ised than I remembered when I went back last year. I went to Incheon United vs Suwon Bluewings and the announcer bellowed encouragement for the home side consistently throughout the match. That sort of thing should not be encouraged.

To see more of Paul's football stadium photos, be sure to follow him on Instagram.

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